by Robert M. Woods
In all of our Great Books based programs we exalt the primary readings, unmediated by commentaries, critical theories, jargon ladened treatises, and a mountain of secondary works explaining what a given author meant within his work. What we generally do is encourage the students to jump right in and start swimming. By asking interpretive questions and applying the Socratic method of clarifying and qualifying, the student has better understanding of the reading. Of course, we all know that sometimes answers to our questions about a reading are not to be found within the work and sometimes we need additional outside, background materials to assist a fuller reading. Typically, our students read introductions at the end and not the beginning.
All this is stated to provide the exceptions. Sometimes there are those writings about the Great Books that offer such assistance and are so rich with insight that the secondary work in conversation with the primary work comes a work well worth reading and analysis. One could immediately think of T.S. Eliot’s reflections on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Another would be Russell Kirk’s ruminations on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. [Read more...]